Loretta woke up alone. It was the first of June, her first wedding anniversary. She stirred quietly as the morning sun peered in through her bedroom window and turned to face the day. As she sat up, she rubbed her eyes, feeling the ring around her finger touch her face. She stopped for a moment to examine the symbol of her nuptials – the physical representation of the unfathomable love she had for her soldier across the world. The sun caught the ring and it gleamed for a moment. The spark of light forced Loretta to put her face in her hands and cry.
The silence was a reminder that there was no Harold hopping around the house that morning. There was never any preparation for what she was experiencing. She felt guilty for leading a semi-normal life at home while her husband lay in prison, probably fearing for his life. Harold always made it sound so peaceful and civil in prison, but she read the newspapers. She knew it was – most likely – far worse than he described. She often found herself questioning what he wrote, but not because she thought he was lying. She knew he couldn’t tell the whole truth or else his letters wouldn’t make it past the censoring bureau. She also knew that he couldn’t tell the whole truth because he didn’t want her worrying more than she already was, and that reminded her of how much he still cared.
She made herself a pot of coffee and took in whatever silence she could manage before other members of her family woke up. It was a Thursday, and she didn’t have to go to work until three o’clock that afternoon, so Loretta planned to get a quick bite to eat with Eleanor if the timing was right. They could gab and people-watch before she had to go catch the train at Jamaica Station. Such a beautiful, sunny day may as well have been cloudy and raining, for Loretta could do nothing other than think about her man. The morning felt a little emptier than usual; her company was the ticking clock, almost eight. Loretta’s mother was already off policing, and she was thoughtful enough to leave her daughter a small slice of pound cake next to the coffee pot. Attached to it was a note with a simple heart. Loretta sat with a newspaper at the table. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle always carried news of the war – where the Allies were, how many were killed, who defeated whom, and so on. It was overwhelming to read and at the same time she was oddly comforted to know that Harold wasn’t in the mix-up of battle. His battle was happening within the fences, certainly, but to what extent she feared she would never know.
Eventually the photos of war and destruction turned the slice of cake in her stomach, so she decided it best to start her day. She wanted to go for a walk around the block, stop in and see Harold’s mother, and see if Eleanor was around for some more coffee. It was such a melancholy day for it being so warm, but she reasoned to make the most of it. She thought to herself that Harold would want her to celebrate, regardless of what he was doing. Before work too, she decided, she’d check in once more at home and see if he sent her a letter in the mail – that would brighten her day.
June 1, 1944
What a husband I turned out to be; missing our first anniversary. I’m sorry doll, and I won’t let it happen again. I hope [you’re] well and happy. I love you. Regards to the family.
Softball season started this week and we’re going at it strong, too strong I should say, for we break a bat a game. At this rate, I’ll be playing volleyball next week. Sports keep me busy during the day and my nights are always reserved for thoughts of you. I love you doll.
The men organized their teams and really did enjoy the sunlight they were receiving – when it pleased the guards. It wasn’t the bat-breaking group of men Harold portrayed to Loretta, but he was at the very least grateful for not feeling holed up in the barracks with the bugs and the cold any longer. Spring was proving itself more forgiving already, and with the weather only getting warmer, Harold felt optimistic. The chatter around the camps was that Hitler was losing control of his men and the war; Harold liked the idea of getting home before Christmas.
The break in the cold was pleasant enough to encourage Harold to socialize outdoors, walk around the camp, and read a little more. He came to learn, though, as the weather got warmer, the smells of the latrine and the smells of the ill and dying worsened. If the temperature exceeded 70 degrees fahrenheit – and God forbid if the heat was accompanied by a breeze – the smell of several thousand men’s communal toilet wafted across the camps, hanging in the air and sticking to their nostrils. There were certain parts of the camp the men were able to socialize without having to endure the smells too much, but eventually it became a part of their daily life, and they learned to ignore it. Harold was certain the stench was worse than the year before when he was captured. There were promises and grievances to clean the latrines out every week. Eventually once a week turned into once every two weeks. Once every two weeks turned into once whenever they felt like it. There was no toilet tissue available, and the men grew accustomed to saving food wrappers and sometimes old letters to wipe themselves. The Red Cross made notes of this, he was certain, but he couldn’t understand how such inaction continued. Poor latrine conditions were the least of their concern. The camp was in violation of so many Geneva Convention laws, including the killing and beating of unarmed prisoners. Harold couldn’t understand how nothing was done. He also couldn’t let on to Loretta, though, whom he wrote home with nothing but positive notes to keep her from worrying too much.
That night Harold lay awake and unable to shake the very real fear that he might not get out of his hell before Christmas. He was feeling awfully low, although receiving packages from loved ones and letters from family. The brutality of the prison camp, of the guards – and the damned barking dogs – brought him down if he thought on it for too long. It was nearly impossible to avoid the negativity when kept in a pen like an animal all day, every day. He tried his best to embrace the changing seasons, the boys outside playing softball, and the sunshine. But with the impending warm weather Harold could only think about Loretta and Artie, the lake houses, and his first date with his gal back in 1937, or was it 1938? Strawberry ice cream, two scoops. Soon it would be their first wedding anniversary, and where was he? Stuck in prison.
The days and months melted together like their summer desserts and Harold found himself having difficulty recalling certain dates and memories; he mistakenly dated a letter to Loretta 1943 just a couple of months prior. Soon it would be a year since he was shot down. He traced the marks on his arm from where his own plane betrayed him. And if he thought long enough about it, Harold swore he could feel the rigid scar tissue in his back pulse – a constant reminder of the day he could have died. He didn’t fault himself for wondering if death would have been the better option, as he lay there hungry and restless. His faith, though, and his love of Loretta made him trust that no, death wasn’t better.
After heavy rain everything sat in stagnant rainwater, and began to fester with mosquitos and algae. Warm weather in prison camp didn’t mean memories and ice cream. It didn’t mean that the men would get a different meal than hot water, canned meat, or prunes. It just meant they didn’t have to burn as much of their resources to keep warm.
While outside with a cup of water, he felt a bug crawl on the left side of his neck and swatted at it. Sometimes, he feared, if he was quiet enough he could hear the bed bugs crawling along the wooden bunks. The infestations only increased since his admission to XVII-B the year before, and it was apparent in the men. He thought to himself that, when he got home, he would have to convince Loretta to have all metal furniture in their bedroom when they were settled in the cottage. How badly he wanted to be next to her in bed than beside another soldier.
Your packages were eagerly received and well worth their weight in gold. To date I’ve received 5 parcels, of which 3 were cigarettes. The contents of the other two were quickly devoured or put to urgent use. I’d like to add that vitamin pills will be appreciated. I’m getting your letters, but very irregular. I’m anxiously awaiting our wedding picture. I hope [you’re studying] earnestly to master the accordion. T’would be a great delight to be serenaded by the music your nimble fingers choose.
Half the letter gone, and I haven’t once mentioned that I love you. Believe me doll, I do love you. What else could it be that causes you to appear in my every undertaking? Your hair, eyes, lips are seen with animated enjoyment. The letter must close but the love I have here within for you shall never cease.
All my love,
The winter continued to be unforgiving. Harold was becoming almost entirely reliant on what Loretta and his other family members sent him from the United States. He knew then after receiving his care packages in February, the next shipment probably wouldn’t come around until April or May. Harold found himself feeling weaker and his weight dropped more than he ever noticed before, although he hadn’t seen his own reflection in months. He noticed the veins in his arms becoming more prominent, the hair on his head felt thinner, and his teeth hurt. With only a few hours of running water a day – and it never hot – the men were resolved to burning the remainder of the outdoor latrines down in order to keep warm. They were still sleeping regularly two – sometimes three – to a bed, which would mean anywhere between six and nine men per bunk, to prevent freezing. Commandant Kuhn promised ample blankets to the Americans as well as the other prisoners of war, but it was obvious they didn’t care what the soldiers received. Tensions were high as the men banded together to split blankets – more like tablecloths, Harold thought. There were maybe two blankets to every three or four men, and they hardly did a damn thing. They never saw the belongings that were stolen by the guards a month prior; the Red Cross rations seemed to be less and less as well. The soldiers were used to receiving one package per man, and they found themselves sharing more often now. It was vital to have shoes on at all times so that their toes didn’t freeze off. The close quarters increased the risk of illness and the sick bay was overwhelmed with disease – mostly skin and upper respiratory infections.
All of this became routine, though. The men couldn’t fight the guards – they had guns – and dogs. Harold loved dogs back home, but hated these dogs. These shepherds were extensions of the SS, trained to attack any man who got “too” out of line – or not out of line at all. But the guards didn’t seem to need any real excuse to beat, or even kill, Americans. When a soldier was killed by an SS, some men with their spirits beaten down would say, “They shouldn’t have ran,” or, “They shouldn’t have tried to escape.” But there was no need to use such forces on men who weren’t even granted three square meals a day – Harold knew that. With the camp population swelling further beyond capacity each week, and the German rations cut in half only a month earlier, tensions continued to escalate across the camp with tangible force.
“This is due to the rich supply of the Red Cross food.” Commandant Kuhn looked for any excuse to make the men suffer wherever possible, wherever he could squeeze them a little tighter.
The lack of food, the cold, and the three doctors available to the Americans made some of the men begin to lose their minds. One prisoner was admitted for being mentally ill. The other men had noticed for a while, their fellow slowly and surely slipped into a state of delusions and paranoia. The doctors available to the camps weren’t trained in this type of condition. Harold felt sorry for the man, unable to discern real from fake. Then again, Harold often woke up wondering whether or not he was truly living in Stalag XVII-B, even after almost a year of imprisonment. When the man was finally admitted, they wished him well and hoped he would gain some healing in the medical ward; at least he was safe there in his hospital gown.
One bitter morning in March was broken with screams. A French doctor tried to calm the mentally disturbed prisoner, but it was obvious that the man was disillusioned. The prisoners – those feeling well enough to rouse from bed that early – made their ways through the freezing barracks to see what was happening in the twilight of morning. The shouting only got louder until Harold and the others saw the shadow of the patient run towards the boundary fence, his feet crunching and catching in the frozen, muddied ground. A guard, on alert, began to yell at the prisoner, only frightening him more as he picked up speed and ran faster in his hospital pajamas away from the medical barracks. His dressings flapped around in the bitter cold. Clearly he was ill to be running in such minimal clothes.
“Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot! He is ill!” The French doctor chased after the man, waving his arms to garner attention from the SS who at that point released his pistol from the holster. The patient huffed to a part of the fence – free of electrical charge – and began to climb. Frantic, the doctor began to yell louder and higher pitched, to get the patient to get down off the fence. He was pleading, screaming for the SS to hold fire for the man was clearly out of his mind.
“No! No!” The men watched from the barracks, helpless to the situation. If they left their barracks they’d be beaten, maybe even shot themselves. They looked on at this twisted dance between SS, doctor, and sick man.
A loud crack rang out, piercing the morning air. Smoke trailed from the barrel of the guard’s pistol like a snake as the doctor slowed down and looked on, his hands limp at his sides. A dog, startled by the gunshot, began to bark and its shrill cries stung Harold’s ears. The patient, upon hearing the screams of the doctor, turned around on the fence to look behind him. The SS took the opportunity and shot the man through his heart. He exhaled hard. They were far away but Harold could see the victim’s hot, white breath curl from his mouth and up into the morning as if his soul was leaving his body. His hand released from the fencing, his body falling limp and bloody onto the frozen ground. The doctor, who hadn’t stopped running, arrived to his aid.
“You killed him!” He knelt into the dirt and held the dead man’s head in his hands. He cursed the guard in French. The blood soaked through the hospital pajamas and for only a moment, Harold wondered if they would discard the clothing or recycle it for the next patient. The guard said nothing right away, only holstered his pistol before instructing the doctor and other guards to dispose of the body. The men in the barracks looked on, said nothing, and eventually peeled themselves from their witness stands and returned to their bunks – dead men walking. They could never win in here, it seemed.
That night, Harold fell asleep quicker than usual. His hunger and the cold pushed his eyes closed almost as soon as he lay down on the mattress beside his bunk mate. What could have been minutes or hours – he didn’t know – Harold, along with the other men in the barracks, were woken up by that same loud alarm. At first, he thought it was morning, and thought the guards were implementing the same fake drills they had the week before. But then, he heard dogs barking. Violent, high pitched yelps and yaps pierced the night. Harold began to open his eyes. Suddenly, screaming in both German and English overshadowed the cries of the dogs. Two gunshots shattered the air and his eyes jolted open to notice it was the dead of night. Harold knew what just happened – someone was killed. He sat up, along with many other men, to the sound of a muffled yell outside beyond the fence. Then, another gunshot.
Suddenly, more gun shots – random and wild began to hit the barracks. Pop pop pop pop! A man in one of the bunks let out a yell and it was followed by a thud to the ground. He had been shot in his bed.
“Oh my god! Medic! Someone!” The man’s bunkmate rushed to his aid as he lay on the floor, gripping his abdomen.
Chaos broke out in the barracks as others scrambled in the dark to understand what was happening and avoid any other possible gunfire. Harold hope for a moment in all the distress that the camp was under attack from Allied forces. If that wasn’t true, then it was the worst case scenario – the men were under attack by their guards.
“His hands were up! Both of them had their hands up!” A witness to the shooting yelled through the darkness with no intended audience. “Is he dead? Are – they dead?”
Some men looked on while others tended to the wounded soldier in the barracks. The rest scoured around to make sure that no one else had been injured or killed in the random shooting. The prisoners were still unsure of what had just occurred, but they were certain people were dead; they just didn’t know why.
It was learned that in his silence that followed his rant, a fellow soldier plotted with his bunk mate to escape the prison and find his own way to Allied help behind enemy lines. Anything, he must have thought, would be better than what was happening at XVII-B. His bunk mate agreed to the plan, and they left in the middle of the night, clinging to the sides of what were supposed to be knock-down buildings that resided a little too close to the fences of the camp. The men were out and began running, but the bunkmate tripped over the uneven, frozen ground. It gained the attention of the guard on duty, and from his watchtower he shined a spotlight directly on the two men and sounded the alarm. The men stopped running once the dogs began to bark. They turned around and raised their hands to surrender; it was better to go back and take a beating rather than be ripped to shreds by guard dogs. With their hands up, the guards approached and drew their weapons. The men began to yell at the guards that they had given up and they were no longer running, to which the guards yelled back in German, and among one another. Ultimately, the guards fired at the prisoners and they both fell, arms up, into the snow.
One of the men died instantly, struck in the head. The other, though, was wounded in his leg. He began to crawl back towards the camp when the guard who shot him ran to him. The prisoner begged to be taken back to camp – to a medic – and the guard, instead, fired his weapon a second time. The prisoner was injured – not dead. When the witness began to holler and the guard realized he was not alone in his dealings, he began to fire his pistol angrily and at random in order to create confusion. The prisoner lay bleeding before him, begging to be taken into the camp again. He quietly wept into the frozen ground while the guard stood over him – triumphant – and holstered his weapon.
“He needs a proper burial.” The men protested to the Germans to bring the body of the fallen soldier back into the camp. The mastermind behind the escape – the angry prison – was, in some way, free. Harold stood and observed from a distance, the scene before him unwinding slow and tragic, the scene in the barrack bloody and unwarranted.
“No. He wanted to escape so badly. Let him spend his eternity to decay beyond the wires of this camp.”
“You’re a monster!” The wounded man remained beyond the fence as well, bleeding and alone – barely alive – while the soldiers argued with the guards within.
“You can’t just leave him to the elements!”
“He is already dead, what more does he need? He was no more than an animal and he will stay there. Denied.”
Dawn was coming up on the camp. The men had already been awake for several hours. Many of them remained in the barrack. The wounded soldier was transported to the infirmary where a medic worked to remove the bullet that lodged itself in his stomach. He would survive, but he would be unable to move around much for quite some time. The man who was shot twice out of bounds from the camp was transported – after several hours, and much blood loss – to the infirmary. This was only accomplished once the prisoners relented to the guard’s denial of the other body’s transfer back into the camp. A compromise that pleased the guard, and sickened the soldiers. The fallen man would have to remain outside of the fence, and there was nothing that could be done to change it.
Harold looked beyond the barbed fence (as close as he could get without suffering the same fate) at the human-shaped mound that lay in the clearing.
“Food for the scavengers,” one of the guards said.
Birds sat out of reach in the snow-dusted trees and sang crisp morning songs that fell over the prisoners. Like church songs, he thought. Then, quieter, truer – The birds are laughing at us.
The next morning – to the prisoners’ surprise – started the same. Dawn was interrupted with the deafening sounds of alarms, and the men funneled out of their barracks once again to the parade grounds. The dirt was solid and uneven from all the tracks of the previous day, and Harold stumbled over himself – as did many of the others – while they formed in line. Guards presented themselves through the haze of daybreak with the exact same orders as the day before. Many men hesitated, for fear of deceit again, while many others turned around and gathered as much as they could for whatever impending journey lay ahead. Harold still had Loretta’s note in his breast pocket from the day before. He grabbed canned food from the Red Cross, his cover, his jacket, and packed it all haphazardly before returning out into the morning chill. The rest of the men did almost the same, gathering what they wanted and needed, then turning to face the biting winter once again.
The sun rose high, but today there was a breeze. The men fidgeted around, not for lack of patience, but from cold and exhaustion. Their packs grew heavy; many men rested their belongings on the dirt while they waited, once again, for the guards to herd them out of XVII-B. After what felt like an eternity, the prisoners were met by the same guard as the day before.
“Alright! Back to your barracks!”
More confusion and anger rose among the crowds of men who realized the German guards were playing games with them, as if they were fat house cats and the prisoners were their prey. They didn’t put up a fight – most eager to escape the wind. Harold turned and followed his bunkmates back to the barracks, where he returned his pack. This time, though, he left it ready.
“What in the hell do you think they’re tryin’ to do to us?” The men were gathered around their stove in a small group.
“They’re tryna’ control us, that’s what,” one suggested.
“I think they’re trying to remind us who’s in control, you know? First, they cut our rations. Now, they have us standing outside in the freezing cold with the fear we may be marching on into the elements? They want us scared, I’d say.” The prisoner rubbed his hands together and politely pushed his way forward towards the stove; it was burning straw taken from some of the mattresses and wood from a knock-down barrack that the Germans decided was too close to the fences.
“Whatever it is, I don’t like it.” None of the men liked it. Harold shook his head. He had nothing to say this evening. He was just as beat up as the rest of his bunkmates with the threat of leaving. He tried to suppress the fear of never seeing Loretta.
On the third morning, the men almost expected an alarm – and that’s exactly what they received.
“Aw man well isn’t this just horse shit,” one man shouted from his bunk; it was below freezing, and they were all exhausted from the half rations and exposure to the elements. Slow and lamenting, the prisoners got up out of bed and – before they were told to – packed up small miscellaneous items to bring with them outside.
“Might as well beat ‘em to the punch, huh, Red?” Harold nodded and picked up his pack, left full from the day before.
Once outside the men were told to stay in formation on the parade grounds, as expected. The sun was almost completely up over the horizon and they were grateful for no wind. Then, to their surprise, guards walked past them and towards the barracks.
“Bunk checks!” The guard from the previous two days had a diabolical smile on his face. As the prisoners helplessly looked on, a swarm of Germans entered their barracks. They turned in place as they heard items overturn behind them and things scatter across the plank floors.
After about an hour of dreaded anticipation, the men were instructed to, for the final time, return to their barracks. They scrambled in a mad dash back to their bunks only to find the guards ransacked their living quarters. Harold, having most of his belongings in his pack from the night before looked on as many of the men shouted in anger at missing food, clothing, and blankets. He, too, was missing canned goods left behind and other small Red Cross items.
“Those sons-a-bitches!” The men desperately threw their bedding around while others yelled out in anger.
“They stole from us! They stole our Red Cross supplies! They took it all!” A man, a few feet from Harold, fell to his knees and wailed.
“They’re going to try to starve us to death. Those bastards.” He put his head in his hands and Harold watched as his bony shoulders jutted up and down under his thin, dirty shirt. Harold sat down on his bed, his rucksack still around his shoulders. He stared into the chaos before him. Some men were like him and kept their bags packed from the night before, but most weren’t so lucky. So many items missing, all in an hour or so – and there was nothing they could do about it. He was in disbelief. They had to get the Man of Confidence to file a formal complaint. They had to do something – get their rations back – anything. He touched his breast pocket again. Loretta was still with him and that was a good thing in all this, he thought. The day was looking grim; he wasn’t sure how much more he could take.
The noon day sun that melts the snow brings thoughts of you, and how easily my heart would melt if your rays could reach me. To date, I’ve received no word from home. I miss you lots, and love you more. Proof of my love lies in the fact that I haven’t looked at a woman since that unfortunate day some months ago. Whether I could or not, is immaterial, the fact still remains.
The men were freezing and already burned through their week’s ration of coal by the morning of the fourth. January was unforgiving, with some nights dropping below 10 degrees fahrenheit. They relied heavily on keeping bundled and surrounding the stoves that resided in the middle of each barrack. Many men fell ill and died that month, and those who survived were grateful to whatever life they still held onto.
In December, the Red Cross delivered parcels that seemed promising – canned meats, medical supplies, blankets, and some fresh clothes. They were guaranteed one parcel per man that month and it felt like Christmas when the trucks came through the camp. Along with more men being permitted to keep their flight jackets, they were now given some warmer garments to get through the winter. Harold boiled at the thought of not having his flight jacket anymore; Every time he saw a man walk past in a bomber jacket, he thought back to the police officer in Kehrenbach who took his off at gunpoint.
Harold found some sewing needles in his package; the Red Cross included them for some reason. He found it humorous that something such as sewing needles were given out; Loretta could use these to hem my pants, he thought. Still, nothing should be wasted, so he put the needles in his kit of other miscellaneous items. This was their Christmas – the Red Cross packages. They had to be grateful.
Within their own personal rations, the prisoners rationed even further in an attempt to make every bite count. They felt blessed to have things to be accountable for, for once. The Germans weren’t reliable with food regardless of the season, and the men collectively agreed they could use a little more protein in their diets, especially with disease running rampant across the camps.
“These men are being treated as if they are not in prison,” Commandant Kuhn hissed through his teeth at the news of rich food supplies sent into the camp. He saw men walking around not only in their bomber jackets, but also fresh pants, and fresh socks. They looked comfortable and that infuriated him.
“Sir, what would you like us to do about the increased morale?” One of the guards stood before Kuhn in his office. Increased morale would equal increased energy and spirits, and that would pose a threat to the armed guards running XVII-B.
“Cut their meals.” The answer came so easily to Kuhn. “Cut their meals and see how far they get on their canned meats, and canned vegetables, and canned fruits.” He didn’t care that it was the dead of winter, or that so many of the prisoners had fallen ill already – he cared about control, and what better control than the starvation of thousands of men?
The next morning, Harold received hot water for breakfast, which was no surprise. He actually enjoyed it with the freezing January temperatures. When lunch was served several hours later, Harold found himself before another serving of hot water and a small piece of bread – smaller than what he was accustomed to. By dinner his stomach cramped with hunger; he didn’t want to dive into his Red Cross rations so soon. The men were served a measly half-ration of cabbage soup, with no bread, and black coffee. What was happening around the camp? Surely the other men noticed something was wrong when the already miniscule amounts of food they anticipated were shrinking in size.
“Why do you think they’re doing this? Are they trying to starve us to death? It’s the middle of winter, for God’s sake!” The men rumbled with agitation at the scant helpings they were served. Each day, it seemed to be less and less food. Harold found himself dipping into his canned rations, and some men were even splitting their rations amongst two or three men in order to keep everyone in some semblance of health.
“It’s half of what we normally get,” Harold replied without looking up. He stood around the stove in the middle of the barrack with a group of prisoners and swirled a tin can of now-cold black coffee around in his hand.
“It’s less than that, I’d bet,” another said.
“Maybe we’re getting out of here soon. Maybe they’re just using up the rest of the rations because we’re going to leave.”
“But we shouldn’t want to leave,” a prisoner interrupted, “not right now at least. You hear what’s going on up north in the camps? We don’t want that. Hell, I know I don’t want that. I hate this place through and through – I think we can all agree – but Lord, I’d rather be inside than mustered for no reason. Let’s just be thankful we got some new clothes from the Red Cross. They can try and cut our rations but we just have to stick together in this, boys.”
The rest of the men nodded and some replied with an “mhm” of agreement. No one really knew what was going on in the other camps but the prisoners at XVII-B wanted to stay in place, at least, that was until the weather warmed up. The rumors of the German forces weakening were promising to the soldiers, but that still left their fates in the dark. Would they be killed at the end of the war? Would they fight back? What lengths would the Germans go to in order to force control over these men? The group remained huddled around the stove for as long as it would remain hot. Eventually, they trailed off one by one to their bunks, Harold following in the crowd. It had been over a week since the men received full rations from the Germans. Everyone felt the pangs of hunger and exhaustion this night.
Morning mist hovered above the thousands of footprints left by soldiers in the parading area outside. Each impression overlapped and suffocated one another – the same suffocation the men felt. There was no wind as the sun continued to rise over XVII-B. It was painfully, beautifully silent. There were no men yelling out or hollering; no dogs barked and no German echoed from the watchtowers. Harold lay awake, catching glimpses of other prisoners who were also absorbed in the rare pre-dawn quiet.
All at once the prisoners roused in panic and confusion. An alarm sounded from outside in one of the towers and it pierced the morning air. An explosion of noise and the rumble of footprints shook the already shaky floorboards of the barracks as thousands of men rushed to the exits to muster on the poor excuse for parade grounds. The guards were already awake and waiting for them, silver and bronze glimmering in the morning sun. The Man of Confidence approached.
“What is going on here this morning? Why are all these men mustered?” One guard stood in front with his thumbs tucked into the side of his gun belt, his pinky fingered the holster of his pistol.
“Instruct your men to grab what they can carry and form again out here within the next ten minutes.”
Although he was the same height as the Man of Confidence, the guard – with his gun and his pressed clothes – seemed to tower over him from the viewpoint of the other prisoners. He looked down on the man with power in his eyes. He knew there was no fight, and so did the prisoner.
“And then what?” The Man of Confidence was talking to the guard’s back; he didn’t have time to stand out in the cold and entertain the questions of these men.
“And then you wait,” the guard chirped over his shoulder.
Quickly, the prisoners rushed back into their barracks to pack up whatever they could carry. Harold was frantic in grabbing his letters from Loretta, some canned food – an extra jacket. Others just grabbed blankets off beds.
“Where are my damned socks,” another hollered over the rumbling of desperate men. It was chaos as they all threw on pants and coats and covers. Harold looked for a familiar bunkmate in the crowd, because that would be the man he wanted to march with, wherever they might go. He caught the gaze of a friend and hurried on over to him.
“We were just talking about this yesterday, were we not?” He thought back to the group huddled around the stove with their mismatched cups of coffee. “We don’t want to be out in this garbage.”
“I hear ya, Red,” his bunkmate replied.
They headed back out to the parade ground along with the other thousands of soldiers and mentally prepared for whatever march they had to take on. Harold was afraid but it was overpowered by the thought of seeing Loretta again. He placed a hand over his breast pocket where one of her letters rested.
I received your nice letter and it was swell of you to try and cheer me up when you were probably eating your own heart out. I was sort of waiting for a letter from you and I was certainly glad that I did receive one. During the time that Ha was missing I sat down and wrote a letter to you telling you just what I was thinking and feeling. Well after the letter was finished I felt a bit better but when I read it over I decided that it was a pretty depressing letter to send to a person that needed cheering up himself. I was anxious to hear how you took the news about Ha. Gosh, you were all alone when you got the knews whereas your mother and I at least had others around to console us. Gosh, Art, I hope and pray that I never have a shock like that again. Why my hair isn’t snow white today I don’t know. Gosh! If anything ever happened to Ha I would have absolutely nothing. I never thought I would be so thankful to learn that Ha was a prisoner of war but I certainly am. After waiting for five weeks and two days of uncertainty, what a relief. You probably received El’s letter telling you of the card that Ha sent. What a good feeling to look at that old familiar handwriting again.
I met Jeanne a week ago Saturday so we sat in Goosers gabbing over a Banana Royal. We really enjoy talking to each other. Jeanne is really one swell girl, as if you didn’t know.
Eddie Wilson and Ronnie are getting married next month. Pretty soon everyone on the corner will be married.
I received two letters, one from Jack Thompson and one from Ned Transon. Ned and Jack are very close buddies of Harold’s. Both were so happy to hear that Ha was found. Jack and Ned are both on the same plane. They were on the mission over Kassel with Ha. Jack explained how one fellow in his crew said, “Hey Jack, Kelley’s in trouble.” Kelley is Ha’s pilot. It seemed like an eternity for Jack and Ned waiting for the crew of Ha’s plane to bail out. Jack counted five himself and when he and Ned got back to the Fortress base they just looked at each other. Another fellow in their crew must have read their minds and said, “What are you two guys looking so blue about, I counted ten chutes.” The two of them got so excited they started to cry. Then the two of them had to just wait for the better news.
Judging from Jack’s letter he is seeing but plenty of action. It seems that their squadron is the group leader now. His amount of missions will be over soon but that doesn’t mean that he will stop fighting. Jack has really proved a good friend to Ha.
Gosh! Art, I can’t think of much more to say except that I hope this war ceases soon. Then we can all start those nice little homes we dream about.
Keep well and God Bless you.
Loretta mailed the letter out from Jamaica on November 5th and was surprised to see the parcel sent back to her only a couple of weeks later. She could have sworn that the address was correct – sure, it was difficult to know for certain if Arthur had been moved around the Pacific, but she thought at least it would have made it to him at some point. The Patrol Torpedo boats were always around on the water, so he may have been missed somewhere. Maybe it didn’t pass the censoring department; she did retell much of Jack’s story from Germany. All she wanted to do was make sure that Arthur knew his twin was, at the very least, alive; everyone back home could only hope he was safe, but that was up to the Jerry’s. The last notice Artie got was of Harold’s disappearance when the Classy Chassis went down just outside of Kassel that fateful day three months earlier.
She went to see Eleanor and inquired about whether or not she received any news of letters to Arthur coming back to her as well. Especially since she had mail returned to her when Harold was missing, an all too familiar uneasiness crept back up again in her stomach. What an unfortunate happening, she thought to herself, if both of the Schwerdt boys were prisoners of war on opposite sides of the world. It was rumored at the time that prison camps in the Pacific were much more brutal than those in Europe, and she could only hope that Artie was only moved to a new location rather than missing.
The news came soon after Loretta received her letter back. It was much, much worse than anyone could have feared. Arthur was dead. She stood in disbelief in the doorway of the Schwerdt home, clutching the returned letter in her hand with its large red print and pointed finger across the front. RETURN TO SENDER. Her knees shook and she felt as if she would pass out right there in the hall. There must have been a mistake, it wasn’t possible, she thought. Not Arty, not Otz. But as she shakily entered the house and saw Jeanne sitting with Mary Schwerdt, eyes swollen and red and a handkerchief in her hand, Loretta wasn’t able to deny that Arthur wouldn’t receive another letter from home.
“This… this just can’t be,” Jeanne whimpered. She wiped under her nose and Arthur’s mother got up as the tea kettle began to scream in the kitchen, a welcome sound to drown out the sniffling and crying of whatever members of the Schwerdt family were present.
“Oh, I’m just so, so sorry, hon,” Loretta said. She couldn’t contain her own tears as she sat next to her sister in-law and placed a hand on her shoulder. “I’m just so sorry.”
Mary returned to the kitchen, stoic as ever. She had a hot kettle and extra tea cup for Loretta and poured hot water out for the girls. Loretta wanted to reach out and touch her – grab her hand, hug her – but only managed to say thank you for the tea and cupped it between her own trembling fingers. Part of her wondered how it happened. She refused to believe that anything could kill Arthur Schwerdt – he was too crafty, too sly, too good at making things work. She didn’t have to wonder for long, though, as Mary began retelling what she was told when two men knocked on her front door that morning.
On November 1, 1943, Allied forces turned their focus towards reducing the size of Japanese forces on the main bases of Bougainville camp on the Shortland Islands, as well as taking control of the island itself. The benefit of taking Bougainville was the need only for the flatlands that surrounded the island – optimal areas for airfields.
On the night of November 13th, Arthur was operating with a crew on PT-154 off the Shortland islands in the Pacific. It was a nighttime anti-barge mission. Their goal was to cut the fuel sources to the Japanese who occupied the island, eventually allowing Allied forces to take over Tonolei Harbor. No fuel. No planes. No ships. The men moved silently with the assistance of PT-155. The water lapped up against the sides of their boats as they crept along about a mile south of the main Shortland Island. The still, unmoving night was suddenly broken by blinding flashes coming from a mile north of the PT boats. From the shore, three enemy rounds were fired in succession and came screaming towards the men. The first round missed with a deafening roar as it taunted the crews. The second round hit its mark, tearing through the port side of the Tulagi boat that Arthur was a quartermaster on.
The men didn’t even have the time to return fire from their turrets as the shell pierced a readied torpedo. A large flash of fire followed as PT-154 was thrown about the black water, now littered with debris and bodies. Shouts from the shore echoed as the crew struggled to see who was alive, only to be met with blood and cries for help. Arthur lay on the deck of the boat, mortally wounded. PT-155 helped reignite the engine of their partner and both boats limped back to their base.
The nurses tried. Morphine was almost dry, and antibiotics were not accessible. On an afternoon round, in the hazy medical tent, a nurse came to Arthur’s cot — in her hand, a small glass vial of morphine. Arthur raised his hand.
“Give it to someone who needs it.”
“You need it,” the nurse said.
“I’m cooked.” Arthur shook his head and forced a chuckle. He lay on his side. Burns ran along his back and a crudely wrapped wound had bled through since the morning. He breathed shallow and smiled softly at the nurse, a glint in his blue eyes.
Harold lay hopelessly awake next to his bunkie. The security lights passed over the barracks like a lighthouse. It was a cruel trick, he thought to himself, to have a beacon that would only lead him to the barbed wire walls and the bitter Autumn outside. No one could try to escape this place. Harold was warned that the barbed wire was also electrically charged, just in case any of the men decided to risk the pain of jumping on the sharp fence.
He stared ahead at a rotted out piece of the bunk, hunger keeping him awake, exhaustion keeping him from complaining. Deep inside a rotted knot of wood on the bunk he noticed movement. It surely was the hunger, he thought. He must have been hallucinating.
But he wasn’t. The swirl grew and turned into skittering, and from the wood came hundreds – thousands – too many to count, bugs and mites. They swarmed en masse and began their nightly hunt for a meal. All of the men around him were sleeping; how could they be asleep? With thousands of prisoners to choose from, these mites would eat better than the men in the barracks. The airmen were truly at the mercy of everyone. Once free to the skies, they were now locked up, stuffed into beds like sardines – even the bugs had it better.
Harold awoke to itching on his face. He sat up and began to scratch as his hands caught what were certainly bedbugs crawling all over him. He panicked and swiped and swatted at his face with urgency, disturbing the bunkmate who lay next to him. In the low light of the moon, and with the aid of the passing watchtower lamp, Harold caught a glimpse of the man in the bunk beside his. The sleeping prisoner stirred, and rolled over almost too comfortably to bring his face in view of Harold. The man, still asleep, lay covered in bedbugs and Harold watched in fear as he saw little black specks crawl around the corners of the sleeping man’s mouth and eyes. Harold wanted to rouse the man and tell him, but what good would it do? Where would the man wash his face, or de-louse? Even in that bed, de-loused upon arrival, shaved of his signature red hair, Harold knew it was all an illusion. The prisoners were simply prepared for the hungry residents that dwelled in the bedposts. The longer Harold watched, the less recognizable his bunkmate became. All he could do was take notice of the bugs’ hiding places, in particular shirt collars. Harold returned to his back, and resolved to remove the collar from his own shirt in the morning.
He rose the next day, having not slept well at all the night before, to the sounds of the other prisoners walking around the barracks with urgency. Breakfast was hot water, served in whatever tin can or aluminum cup Harold could get a hold of. His face and neck itched, although his bunkmate certainly received the brunt of the bedbug attacks. Harold looked down and noticed a sore on the outside of his right forearm. He put down his cup and rolled up his sleeve to count another, and another – four total that he could see without the help of a mirror.
“That happens sometimes,” a prisoner remarked. He noticed Harold examining himself. “They aren’t wounds, really – almost like bed sores but from the dirt and bugs and no hot water.” Harold didn’t say anything back, just nodded. He had to relieve himself but decided to wait for whatever remaining covered latrine was made available. It wasn’t out of bashfulness, but privacy. Harold hadn’t had any silent time – alone to himself – since England. For months he was caged up with other men, forced to shower, sleep, eat – and shit – in front of them. He just wanted some space to think for a little, even for a minute, about home. He wanted to imagine Loretta in her dress on their wedding day and didn’t want other people peering in on his thoughts.
That afternoon, he saw a man hit in the face with the butt of a pistol. The prisoner was the last to leave the barracks. That was his crime. A guard, much bigger and clearly well-fed grabbed the prisoner by his left arm as he exited for the day and swung his body against a wooden door. The clap of the hit sent a shock through Harold’s body. One prisoner shouted out but was quickly pacified by another. Quiet panic set in as the guard removed his pistol, and a sickening sense of relief followed when he didn’t shoot the man, but instead struck him over the head with its butt. The man, still alive but barely conscious, lay helpless in the dirt.
“You’re just gonna get yourself hit too,” a prisoner whispered to Harold. “Or shot.” He grabbed Harold’s elbow. “Wait for the guard to walk away, and then we’ll get him help.”
October 18, 1943
HELLO, HOW ARE YOU. HOPE MY LETTER FINDS YOU WELL. WAS OVER TO SEE YOUR MOTHER SATURDAY AND SHE IS ENJOYING GOOD HEALTH. ELEANOR WAS HOME AND SHE IS ALL RIGHT TOO. GOING HOME I MET JEANNE SO WE STOOD ON THE CORNER TALKING ABOUT OUR HUSBANDS. SHE IS VERY CONCERNED ABOUT YOU AND WANTS TO BE REMEMBERED TO YOU. EDDIE AND RONNIE ARE DEFINITELY GETTING MARRIED NEXT MONTH. SATURDAY I RECEIVED SOME MORE LETTERS WHICH YOU NEVER RECEIVED. ONE LETTER WAS THE ONE IN WHICH I TOLD YOU THAT JACK FENTON, JACK HOUSTON, VINNIE FINNEGAN, AND WALTER HICKEY HAD SENT US A WEDDING GIFT. IT IS A GLASSWARE SET WHICH CONSISTS OF FOUR DIFFERENT TYPE GLASSES AND CANDY DISHES. IT REALLY IS A VERY BEAUTIFUL SET AND THE GLASSES ACTUALLY RING WHEN YOU CLICK THEM TOGETHER. THAT IS A SIGN OF VERY GOOD GLASS, ROCK CRYSTAL. YOU WILL BE VERY PLEASED WHEN YOU SEE THEM.
WELL DEAR, IT IS GOODBYE. WHERE YOU ARE DARLING, ALWAYS REMEMBER THAT I LOVE YOU WITH ALL MY HEART.
Days – weeks – had passed since Harold arrived at Stalag 7A in Bavaria. He was put in with 1300 or so other Air Force enlisted men. Harold learned that it was September and his wife had finally learned of his holdings. The small shred of joy barely made a dent on the dire situation he found himself in. This camp, 7A, was a transit camp, where he would be held until his inevitable transfer to Stalag XVII-B, a prison camp for enlisted men. It began in 1938 as a concentration camp for Poles, but was converted after 1940 when the war began to gain momentum and the Germans needed prisoner housing for their military counterparts. Stalag XVII-B was already overcrowded, something Harold learned from the chatter among the other prisoners, and he was scheduled to be dumped in the middle of it. Soon, Harold would be surrounded by barbed wire and thick, muddied ground. There were – among other Americans – French, Italians, Russians, and Yugoslavians. All captured somewhere, all stuck in this hell.
The Americans were given five separate compounds and quarters to sleep in, each capable of holding just over 200 men. He stepped lightly, though, as the barracks housed somewhere closer to 4,000. The bunks were hard, wooden slabs with beds – or what advertised themselves as beds – made of straw and dirty cloth. They were stacked three bunks high. There were many men, already tired and weak from months of imprisonment, all sharing bunks with two or three to a bed in order to keep each other warm in the frigid German evenings. It was nearing Autumn, and Harold was reassured that he’d appreciate the extra bodies surrounding him at night. In the middle of the camp were the latrines – at one point covered – now partially covered. Harold learned the men were slowly dismantling the outhouses in order to burn the wood for warmth.
He was scared. He was happy to be alive but Harold thought to himself that this camp very well may have been a punishment worse than death. The men were in varying stages of hunger and ill health; it was as if he was bearing witness to what his own future would hold. At that point – in the war and his imprisonment – the only thing keeping him going was the thought of Loretta back home, waiting for him and hopefully aware that he was, in fact, alright. He couldn’t wait to get a hand on some pencil and paper to write to her. He longed to see her beautiful cursive lines, telling him about how lovely things were back in New York.
The men in the barracks welcomed him. Barrack number 36B, serial number 32319141, or just Harold. Or Red. He told them the stories of what happened back near Kassel, inquired as to the whereabouts of the other nine men he was with that day, and hoped to find them among the sea of prisoners he was now a part of. He was still unaware if his crew was lucky enough to survive the bail-out.
It was morning and Harold noticed for the first time in a couple of days that he was truly hungry. For a prison camp there was a noticeable bustling amount of men, different languages heard across the barracks – hollers and shouts, a couple of laughs, a couple of cries. He looked about at the stark reminder that he was, in fact, imprisoned.
“What do they serve us for breakfast here?” His bunkmate looked sympathetically at Harold, his face already gaunt from malnourishment. Although melancholic in appearance, he put a comforting hand on Harold’s shoulder.
“Morning,” he started, “well, morning is hot water, Red.” Harold swallowed hard.
“Yep,” the man replied. “Monday through Sunday, friend. We get hot water in the morning. Sometimes they give us coffee. Jerry coffee is garbage but at least it’s got a bit of zing to it, you know? Sometimes we’ll get bread and butter in the afternoons. They served us corned beef once but I’m not entirely sure if it was actually corned beef. You eat it anyway because you don’t know when you’re going to get fed again.
“Don’t think about asking for sugar with your coffee, either. Shit always tastes like mud but it’s warm and sits longer than hot water. If the soup has maggots or beetles in it just eat them, or pick ‘em out. You won’t get points for complaining. You won’t get seconds either, and you’ll need the protein.” Harold followed the man around as he was introduced to other prisoners and laid out different parts of the camp.
“That latrine over there is getting more and more baron, too, so I hope you’re comfortable shitting with an audience.” He pointed to the dilapidated toilets that Harold noticed earlier that morning. He let out a weak laugh, not because what his bunkmate said was funny, but because it seemed to be what would have been an appropriate time to break up the sad state these men were in.
“Over there is where we get our parcels and letters. Over there is the infirmary – the Red Cross will send packages and sometimes we can trade with the Red Crosses from other countries; the Brits always have some helpful things. Anyway,” he clapped Harold on the back, “welcome to hell.”
The two men stood in the middle of the barracks with the warm September sun on their backs. It was a welcome comfort, with the looming cold season approaching. Harold wasn’t entirely sure how long he was destined to stay in XVII-B, but he knew that when he left – when – he would do so on his own two feet and not in a body bag. After a few moments, the men continued their informal tour of the camp. Unfortunately, Harold wasn’t able to locate any of his other crewmen from Classy Chassis. He hoped that after he got a letter or two out, someone on the other side would be a more reliable informant of their whereabouts. He had to get in touch with Jack or Ned – or both – he thought. He had to reach out to his mother and Loretta; he had to get word to Artie.
September 17, 1943
Received your letter of Sept. 2, and I certainly was glad to hear from you. I have never seen you, but from the many months association with Ha, it seems as though I have known you all my life.
Ha and Jack, Joe and I were together from morning until night, therefore you can imagine how overjoyed we were to find out that they are safe, even if prisoners of war.
I am sure that they will be treated well, and there is nothing to worry about. We are all living for the day when we can all meet again in the good old U.S.A.
In a way, I guess Ha and Joe are better off than Jack and I, as we must continue going out every day, expecting anything to happen, and hoping for the best.
We all feel that we are coming back, though, and now that we know the boys are safe, we will just have to try that much harder, as the reunion will be complete.
Well, Loretta, I have several other letters to write, and as you know, our time to ourselves is pretty limited, I guess I will close for now.
If you do find time, drop me a line any time, and I will answer first opportunity.
I already knew Ha was a prisoner of war from his sister Eleanor. She has also given me his address.
Gee whiz – you’ll never know how much I worried as I waited for the news which I had hoped would come true. As you can figure out I wasn’t positive.
You know what Doll – I can now give you a picture of what I saw that day.
Well to begin with, we were in front of Ha when things got quite warm. Then suddenly I heard Fred call me and say Kelley’s in trouble. As usual – we always keep an eye on each other.
I watched whenever I could to see what was taking place, then I waited, and waited, for the chute to get out. Oh, if that gang only knew how I cursed and prayed for them to hurry they’d never forgive me. A thousand years came and passed before out they came, 5 of ‘em was all I could see. When we got back home Fred looked at me and I at him, neither of us caring to say what we thought. Higgins, my tail gunner and Marble my waist gunner, must have read our minds for the first thing both said was, “Don’t worry, we saw ten open.” Doll we were so happy knowing at least they had a chance that tears came into our eyes (must have been someone’s cigar).
Those two, Red and Little Joe along with Fred and I were always seen together. If one was around, you knew the others weren’t far away.
You haven’t any idea how much you can become attached to a guy. Here’s an incident about Fred that is exactly true even if he won’t admit it. Until he knew Joe was OK he wouldn’t listen to the song “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.” Joe always sang that, among us it was quite a joke. He had short legs and Fred is 6’1”.
About Red all I did was pray, hope, and wait. My prayers were certainly answered as was yours and all the rest.
Remember the letter I wrote you in which I tried to answer your questions. I know it was vague. It was to me I know, but certain people were around and I did the best I could.
When you write Red, tell him we are OK and don’t worry about us even tho he won’t hear from us except through other sources. We aren’t allowed to write prisoners of war as it may give away military information. If you can tell him anything, tell him I’ve got only 9 more to go. For your information I’m gonna be here a long while now that we got to be the group leader and I’m sure things aren’t going to be easy for us.
My look how I’ve rambled on. You must think me an old man with a lot of gab so I better leave off now and bid you goodbye.
Take good care of things Loretta and if you can spare an extra prayer I know a fellow that can use it.
The old man,
P.S. Tell Red that DB Adams, Karl Alexander, and CC Jones are OK. They went down with Ha.
Loretta received letter after letter returned to her. She didn’t care; she made it a point to write to Harold almost everyday so he would have something nice to read and look forward to. She couldn’t bear the thought of not writing to him, and it helped her just to believe he was out there somewhere, thinking of her. She thought keeping him in the loop of even mundane activities would give a semblance of normalcy in the current awful times. If he was found she would just resend the letters again and everything would be alright. Would she ever hear from him again? Would she ever see her love?
It took five weeks before any news of Harold reached their home in Jamaica. She didn’t know how or when he was found, or the extent of his injuries. What she did know, though, was that Harold was alive. He was a prisoner, but he was breathing and he could still read her letters, and maybe he could write her one or two. Information was given to Loretta and Harold’s mother about where they could send parcels and she beamed at the sight of a usable address. Never in her life did Loretta think she’d be so pleased to learn that her husband was a prisoner. She collapsed into tears of joy knowing that – at the very least – her husband was alive. No one knew how much longer the war would carry on for, but at least he was safe.
Harold did not feel safe. He, along with hundreds of others were cramped and crowded into stinking cattle trains. He had been standing for hours. The destination wasn’t known; maybe it was said back when the men were loaded into the train but Harold couldn’t hear much over the sound of barking dogs. Certain death seemed like the right answer, though, he figured. The smell of where cows once stood mixed with the stench of prisoners. They were all American, he knew that much. He assumed that a handful of them surely belonged to the Eighth Air Force. He searched for eyes to meet his own – someone he could start up a conversation with. All eyes were either turned up to God or down in defeat. Some of these men were already dead. He longed for the train to Mississippi and the kind porter who helped make the ride go by faster. How badly he wanted a sleepless night on the click-clack of the passenger car. Between the coughs and groans, Harold searched for the click-clack of the train, except it wasn’t there. It was a low, thunderous rumble, like an oncoming storm.
Without a window to look out of, Harold turned his attention to counting heads. He speculated a hundred to a car based on the notion that he was unable to turn around. Ahead of him in a corner was a small space that all of the men fervently tried to avoid. A metal bucket sloshed about full of excrement. They stood in varying levels of slumping fatigue and tattered uniforms. Harold held his arms across the front of his chest, missing his bomber jacket. He looked down at the wound on his arm and bent forward a little to test how bad the injury was to his back. Not bad enough, he thought.
September 27, 1943
I miss you lots doll, and still love you. I’m getting along fine. Regards to the family and our friends.